Can Book Publishers Afford to Publish Donald Trump?

Can Book Publishers Afford to Publish Donald Trump?

When (if?) Donald Trump leaves office, he will be deeply in debt and starved of the bully pulpit that has made him an inescapable focus of attention. Ever since he lost the presidential election, many have already begun to tune him out. Once he has left the White House, he will be just another guy tweeting all-caps conspiracy theories about voting machines.

Deprived of the only two things he actually cares about—money and attention—Trump will look to get them back as quickly as possible. He may immediately embark on a campaign for the Republican nomination in 2024. He may launch a television network (or license his name to an existing one, like One America News or Newsmax) and go toe to toe with Fox News for right-wing TV supremacy.

But the most straightforward path to money and attention is the most traditional one for ex-presidents: a memoir, much like the one Barack Obama will publish about his first term next week. There have been whispers about such a book for some time, and speculation is increasing. Earlier this week someone in Trump’s camp told the New York Post’s Page Six that “Trump is being bombarded with book and TV deals that could be worth a staggering $100 million.”

That figure is almost certainly not true—it elicited laughter from multiple publishing sources when I raised it. Barack and Michelle Obama received a $65 million advance for two books, one of which, Michelle’s Becoming, has become the biggest seller of the Trump era. It is highly unlikely that a single Trump book could even flirt with that amount of money. The Post item was, more likely, spin from an interested party—a reminder to publishers that the president commands a large audience and a reminder to the president himself that a memoir could lead to a cash windfall.

For publishers, however, a Trump presidential memoir is hardly straightforward. Putting out a book by the president—particularly if it were ghostwritten by someone like regular speechwriter Stephen Miller—could lead to an enormous backlash, including revolts from staffers, authors, agents, and indie bookstores, even if it were published by a dedicated conservative imprint. A Trump memoir would serve as a test for how much the publishing industry has changed during the Trump presidency and whether business as usual is even still possible.

For the last four years, books with Trump somewhere on the cover have made publishers millions of dollars. The nonfiction bestseller list is riddled with books about the president and his shambolic administration. Books written by ex-presidents are, moreover, reliable bestsellers. Bill Clinton’s My Life and George W. Bush’s Decision Points sold more than two million copies each, despite being plodding and dull. Obama’s A Promised Land is anticipated to be the year’s highest-selling nonfiction book and should surpass both of his predecessors’ volumes. (Though booksellers I’ve spoken to are skeptical that it will outdo his wife’s, which has sold north of six million copies since its 2018 release.)

Given his rabid following and the fact that he received the second-highest popular vote total of all time in last week’s election, Trump’s memoir would undoubtedly be a bestseller. But it’s hardly guaranteed to be a world-historical blockbuster. “One reason publishers love presidential books is that they come with a huge audience and guaranteed media appeal,” Craig Fehrman, whose Author in Chief is the definitive book about presidential writing, told me. “But all of this is predicated on a presidential author transitioning into some kind of bipartisan ‘former president’ figure. Trump seems unlikely to do that, and I don’t think anyone would buy it if he did, so he’s automatically going to be more divisive than his predecessors, regardless of whether he writes a more divisive book.”

Conservative publishing is big business, but a Trump memoir would be, to some extent, a niche book. While Trump die-hards would undoubtedly make up some ground from the millions of book buyers who would be turned off, it’s unclear how much ground. Trump’s 2016 campaign book, Crippled America, sold about 200,000 copies in its first four months.

Normally, a book guaranteed to sell in the hundreds of thousands, and likely to sell in the millions, would be a no-brainer for publishers. Not so a Trump memoir. The Associated Press’s Hillel Italie surveyed a number of New York imprint heads and found only a few who would be willing to meet with ex-President Trump, let alone offer him a contract. A potential Trump memoir is being viewed warily by nearly everyone not employed by a conservative imprint.

The backlash would surely be enormous. The publishing landscape has shifted dramatically in the Trump era; employees are energized and more organized than ever before. Conversations with publishing employees returned again and again to three precedents. First, there was the decision by Simon & Schuster’s conservative imprint Threshold Editions to offer a book deal to right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos—and then rescind it after authors began to pull out of the company’s other imprints. Then, earlier this year, Hachette tried to publish a memoir by Woody Allen with little notice. That book was pulled after dozens of staffers walked out in protest. Hachette’s U.K. division has also lost authors and dealt with a staff revolt over its decision to continue publishing J.K. Rowling after she has repeatedly made transphobic comments.

One staffer, a publicist at a “big five” imprint, told me that publishing Trump “for even a fraction of $100 million would go against everything we’ve heard from the higher-ups this year. I mean, we’ve had so many town halls, committee meetings, book clubs, you name it, to talk about race, privilege, and how ‘publishing can do better.’” An editor at a different big five imprint was certain there would be controversy but noted that pressuring their company from within would be difficult, given the pandemic. “If we were at our normal pre-Covid capacity, I think a walkout would be very likely,” but “Trump is almost certainly not waiting until summer 2021 to ink a deal.” Increased labor activism and demands that publishers live up to their stated values have been two of the biggest stories in publishing during the Trump era—a larger publisher putting out a Trump memoir would lead to a surge in both.

Outside pressure would certainly be brought to bear, too. Authors would likely pull their books, as has happened in earlier controversies. Managers and owners of independent bookstores who I spoke to were divided over whether to carry a hypothetical book. Some said they would, but in small quantities, while others told me they wouldn’t stock it at all. There was “not a chance in hell” that RiffRaff in Providence, Rhode Island, would carry the book, the store’s co-owner Tom Roberge told me. Barnes & Noble and Amazon would undoubtedly stock and sell the book in large quantities, however.

Consumer boycotts would also follow and are not unprecedented. In 1978, Tom Flanagan and Bill Boleyn formed the Committee to Boycott Nixon’s Memoirs, with the slogan “Don’t buy books by crooks.” They were featured on Good Morning America, the Tom Snyder Show, and Saturday Night Live. Boleyn told me they sold “thousands” of T-shirts. “I do think there will be another resistance movement” to a Trump book, Boleyn told me. “I think it fits the same bill. The money should go back into the government coffers and not line the pockets of someone who has done criminal wrongdoing.” Boleyn also noted that his campaign was launched before social media; a new “Don’t buy books by crooks” movement would likely go viral in days, if not hours—even more pressure on publishers.

A book from ex-President Trump would certainly generate millions of dollars in revenue. Publishers, more dependent on bestsellers than ever, rarely let such an opportunity slip away. But the costs could very well be immense—a staff revolt, departures (if not resignations), boycotts, authors fleeing for other publishers. The question facing publishers is simple: Is all of this worth it to publish a mediocre book by a man who is currently doing everything he can to subvert American democracy?

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